Wataru Endo’s Wembley masterclass completes rapid redemption arc at Liverpool

The Japanese midfielder had a tough start after signing in summer but has been a crucial player for Jurgen Klopp recently

Karl Matchett
Monday 26 February 2024 14:49 GMT
Liverpool sign Japan midfielder Wataru Endo from Stuttgart

There were two World Cup winners in the middle of the pitch at Wembley and two midfielders who cost in excess of £100m, but the best one on the park was a £16m signing from Stuttgart.

As Liverpool slowly ran out of senior players and replaced the legs of those who did start but ran out of steam, the same indefatigable presence continued to cover the ground, keep the Reds on the front foot and outshine, outrun or outfight anybody in blue he happened to come across.

Wataru Endo’s first trophy in European football might not be the biggest one on offer, but it was certainly merited and, along with matchwinner Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, the Japanese international was arguably the biggest reason for the Reds’ success in the Carabao Cup final.

Endo could win more trophies this season than in his entire career to date
Endo could win more trophies this season than in his entire career to date (Getty)

This triumph comes seven years after Endo’s last trophy, Asia’s 2017 AFC Champions League. That, a Japanese Cup win a year earlier and a second-tier league title was the sum total of his silverware collection; it’s not unthinkable that he could go close to equalling that number of medals earned in this campaign alone – and play a huge role in Liverpool winning them.

Coming just a few short months after a fairly torrid start to life at the club, Endo’s turnaround has been remarkable; billed as the extra addition in a midfield revamp after primary targets went elsewhere, his relatively low-cost addition is quickly looking a bargain.

The Reds’ summer overhaul, much spoken about by now, saw four new midfielders join the Anfield ranks. Three started the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea, with the biggest name of all, Dominik Szoboszlai, absent through injury. Ryan Gravenberch joined him half an hour in after a late tackle, while Alexis Mac Allister was typically excellent during his time on the pitch. Endo, though, was the only one of the quartet to manage the full 90 at Wembley – and went on to play the entire 120 in fact, surrounded by that point by teenagers and untested youths.

It is testament to his endurance that Klopp opted to leave him in the centre of proceedings throughout; it is testament to his quality levels that he matched or exceeded his expensive Chelsea counterparts entirely.

Yet five and six months ago, against the likes of Newcastle and Tottenham, he appeared lost, swarmed in the centre of a complex system he had yet to get to grips with, almost immobile at times as he searched for peak fitness and watching on with regularity as his fellow newcomers were handed more starts, more game time, more chances.

It’s fair to say his learning curve has been swift and he has risen to the challenge of learning his role supremely well.

Endo celebrates with the League Cup trophy
Endo celebrates with the League Cup trophy (Getty)

“A good development, hey?!” Jurgen Klopp quipped after the game. “I said it a couple of times, we were lucky, we bring him in and I am pretty sure in three or four years Wataru will sign another long-term contract at Liverpool, because he might be 30 or 31 in the passport, but he is a machine.

“Football-wise exceptional, his defensive brain is outstanding, [he] gives us a lot of freedom for a lot of things.

“Top development I have to say. Very helpful!”

Given the injury list at Kirkby these days and the average experience left around him, “helpful” might be the understatement of the season so far.

With Gravenberch joining Szoboszlai, Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara and Stefan Bajcetic on the sidelines in midfield, there’s every chance that in midweek, for an FA Cup fifth-round encounter with Southampton, Bobby Clarke and James McConnell get pushed into the lineup: a duo with one senior start apiece thus far.

Endo left Wembley on crutches on Sunday, suggesting his own participation may be in doubt for that game. But Klopp’s midfield “machine” has quickly become one part who looks to have no replacement, after a series of standout showings.

That, again, is quite the statement, considering the role he has come to fill is one which until last year was one of the Reds’ biggest strengths: that of Fabinho, an elite defensive shield at his peak, part destroyer and underrated ball player – both traits Endo replicates in his own style but with arguably more force and certainly more mobility than the Brazilian tended to.

Endo has produced a series of excellent performances for Liverpool
Endo has produced a series of excellent performances for Liverpool (Getty)

They share another common factor, too: Liverpool’s current anchor inherited the No 3 jersey from his predecessor and has now made it his own, with the sight of him lunging in to block an almost certain goal just a few minutes into Sunday’s final one which will linger just as long as Kelleher’s saves or Van Dijk’s header. No outfield player made more than his 12 recoveries; only one player eclipsed his four tackles won; and he won more duels in total, 12, than anybody else in the final.

An inauspicious start to life at Liverpool gave rise to the suggestion he might be a passenger in this new-look side – but after his showing as a driving force at Wembley, Endo has made the engine room his own.

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